French lesson: Independents help grow organic sales

Charles Redfern - 20 November 2012

An old acquaintance of mine, Jean Verdier, is president of Synabio (the Organic Trade Board equivalent in France). He recently sent me a link to an interview he gave on French TV

Jean said it is great to see organic products in as many retail outlets as possible. He then went on to plead special privileges for the independent organic sector for two reasons. 
Firstly, the independent organic sector is authentic – it support and promotes organic sales because it believes in the organic vision, and understands the bigger picture. 
Secondly, most organic brands are small and medium size (SME) businesses, which find it hard to negotiate with huge corporates. Independent retails outlets are a much better fit for SME brands. 
France like many European countries has an effective independent sector with hundreds of great organic stores. Even though France’s population and per capita GNP is roughly similar to ours, its organic market is double ours, and continues to grow, despite the recession. 
French supermarket sales are increasingly dominant and causing (let’s call a spade a spade) unfair competition. But even in supermarkets, organic is sold less as a lifestyle option, and more as a vote for progress. Carrefour’s organic own label is called 'Agir Bio'. Agir means to act, to make a stand. 
Back in the UK, the Organic Trade Board reports excellent results for its current advertising campaign, Organic. Naturally Different. Recent results shows 35,000 Likes on Facebook, while 80% surveyed said, “The outdoor ads would be VERY likely to encourage them to buy more organic”. Unfortunately the increased sales figures were all from Tesco and Sainsbury’s.
This has opened an old wound for me. The advertising campaign is heavily slanted in my mind to building up sales in the multiples – its decision-making structure, its choice of ad agency and advertising outlets. 
Marketing people often tell me in fatherly tones that no one can ignore the 30% of organic sales that Tesco’s represent. Fine, OK. But none of these people has ever told me that we cannot ignore the 30% of sales that the independent retail sector represents. 
The “indies” are organic pioneers – its true believers, promoters and supporters. I would like to see 30% of the Organic Trade Board’s next campaign totally and exclusively ring-fenced for the independent sector, not for adverts in Hello!, let alone the in-house media of supermarkets.  
That 30% would go to support consumer sales of SME retailers and SME brands. And guess what – everybody would benefit.  France and other European organic markets work because they have the real-food values of the independents at their core. 
Independents brands and retailers understand in-depth the benefits of organic, and broadcast its messages.That’s one of the reasons why France and other European organic markets are growing.
Having people who actually believe in what they are saying and selling is a cornerstone of growth – not a job that can be left to Tesco's and Sainsbury's. 

Charles is the founder of the ethical canned fish company, Fish4Ever, the sister company of Organico, both based in Reading. Fish4Ever's motto is Land, Sea and People. Its land ingredients are 100% organic - supporting traditional fishing communities is as important as saving the fish. He is currently involved in a number of awareness-raising campaigns working with WWF, Sustainable Fish City, the Environmental Justice Foundation and the Marine Conservation Society.

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Charles Redfern
29 November 2012 09:19

Anna. Both of us are involved in good companies and a lot of it has to do with our own personal ethical (and possibly do gooder) drive. The demon we refuse to face is how our own commercial decisions also shape what we do - often entities like yours will buy products that are less "good" because they are cheaper. The justification is always price driven so in the end we are all acting in the marketplace just like Tesco's or any other supermarket or huge commercial business acts. Selling things on price only is the road to (ethical and standards) ruin - you drive out value and values. Of course and in the end we can only be as ethical as our customers allow us to be - your business and mine. This is the elephant in the room. The question rephrased: what price ethics? And from that point of view when not so different from ugly dominationg bullying Tesco's! As for your point about the Soil Association, I think you are wrong - the Soil Association has always eagerly supported indies well. It has two roles: as a certifier just to certify; and as a charity to promote and build up organic sales and beliefs. Both of these roles it performs well with very limited resources - the Soil Association is not mandated to be all and everything for organic. I think the enemy is the media and a political and business class that refuse to buy into organic, backed by general consumer apathy, if not in fact open hostility - so somehow we need to change the mood - and this has been a giant problem for the organic movement. In the meantime the Soil Association must support the 70% of sales in the multiples too - for the sake of organic farmers and in fact all of us that believe in organic. My current gripe is with the OTB campaign, a totally different entity than the Soil Association: I was an enthusiastic founder member but feel the organisation is too supermarket-facing and ignoring the 30% of the market that is indies but we need to be honest about this, it is easy and natural to be supermarket-facing when indies are not at all organised. My ask for the next campaign is that 30% of the funds be ring-fenced for advertising and promotion activity chosen by the likes of you and me. At present I'm a voice in the wilderness. I witness a lot of moaning about the campaign from indies yet at OTB campaign HQ everything is rosy -there are vague mumblings there that they will do something more for our sector but I would like to see this translated to a concrete part of the budget absolutely reserved for activities we would find meaningful. Does anyone else believe this? From past experience, organic companies in the UK just hunker down and do their thing - retail and wholesale - there is never unity and there is never co-operative vision. The fact that the OTB came into existence at all and has put together in year 2 a very good campaign is a small miracle in and of itself - and with none of the institutional support similar entities obtain in Europe - so it's a little bit easy for people to just whinge away from the side-lines. I think we need to put up or shut up basically. I've tried to do this before on a small scale and it hasn't worked - I think sadly I have to do what everybody else does and look after number one. (and that is probably the most depressing conclusion I have ever written...)

Anna Louise Batchelor
21 November 2012 07:44

I totally agree with you Charles and that is why I am so heavily involved with Reading's True Food Community Co-op. We thrive on selling independent brands like yours and keeping that spirit of pioneering alive. At a time when year on year sales of organic products are dropping in the supermarkets it's time to find alternative routes to market for organic products and time that the Soil Association supported this endeavor.

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